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Why Dolphins Make Us Nervous

Thursday, June 13, 2013 - 11:32 AM

What is it about dolphins? They have very, very big brains, and that makes we humans, whose brains are nothing to sniff at, nervous. We don't know what to make of them.

Robert Krulwich/NPR

The latest example: On May 17 in India, the Ministry of Environment and Forests issued an order to all Indian states banning dolphin amusement parks. No leaping out of pools to catch balls, no jumping through hoops. Forcing dolphins to entertain humans, the ministry said, was morally unacceptable.

"Cetaceans [dolphins, whales and porpoises] in general are highly intelligent and sensitive," the Ministry said, "and various scientists who have researched dolphin behavior have suggested that [they have] unusually high intelligence ... compared to other animals."

This means, the Indian ministry went on: "that dolphins should be seen as 'non-human persons' and as such should have their own specific rights." "Non-human persons" — what a pregnant phrase! People-like, but not like people.

Robert Krulwich/NPR

India's putting dolphins (and the other cetaceans) into a new legal category that classifies them as beings nearer to ourselves, with an emotional life that, if we could talk to them, or listen in to whatever they're saying, we might find familiar. I'm thinking of the famous New Yorker cartoon that shows two dolphins swimming side-by-side, where one of them says to another, "If I could do only one thing before I died, it would be to swim with a middle aged couple from Connecticut." (Which you can see here.)

You may giggle, but the joke hurts. Big-brained animals almost certainly wouldn't want to spend years lugging polyester-skinned mammals across shallow swimming pools six days a week, or juggling colorful balls with their rostrums (noses). Their brains suggest they've got better things to do. What, we're not sure. All we know is, being a dolphin has to be a very different from being a person, an experience we can only guess at.

Robert Krulwich/NPR

And yet, because of those brains, it's hard not to slip into thinking of them as if they were variants of us. This happened to me, instantly, last year, when I read that the U.S. Navy had decided to "retire" a group of mine-detecting dolphins, replacing them with robots.

Twenty-four dolphins, after years of service, were being "reassigned," the story said, so that sea drones, or unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs, in Navy parlance) could take their place. The Navy had its reasons. The robots didn't need constant feeding, medical attention, cages and rest. They didn't need seven years of training. Robots could do the job on day one for less — much less. So the dolphins got sacked.

And I thought, what? And, instantly, each of those dolphins became a Norma Rae, fists (fins?) clenched, crying "UNFAIR!" After giving their whole careers to the Navy, sniffing for underwater mines to protect our ships and harbors, this is the thanks they get? That, of course, was my mind shouting; what the dolphins were thinking, if they even noticed the change, is anybody's guess.

Robert Krulwich/NPR

Which is the puzzle. The deep puzzle.

I can understand why an animal that looks like us, a gorilla or an orangutan, with their familiar faces and gestures would get our attention and respect. But dolphins don't blink like we do, don't gaze thoughtfully or frown (ever). Their faces are like masks, and yet, because an organ hidden in their heads, because their brain resembles ours in size, we ignore their different shape, their different habitat, their alien-ness, and we embrace them as "non-human persons."

To be fair, their brains are big. Lori Marino, a dolphin expert at Emory University, told Discovery news that dolphin brains are about "five times larger for their body size when compared to another animal of similar size," meaning their brains are almost as disproportionately large as ours. We are seven times the norm. "Not a huge difference," she says.

The part of the brain dedicated to abstract thinking, the neocortex, in a dolphin brain is "more highly convoluted than our own," she said, and it is her opinion that dolphins are capable of complex, subtle thinking. You don't have a brain like that for no reason.

We Haven't Cracked The Code

So what's the reason? Dolphin scientists assume these animals are very social and communicate constantly, and the brains they have are designed to manage all that inter-dolphin messaging. As to what they're talking about — we haven't cracked the code. But because we, the other big brained species, have used our brains to organize armies, to re-design landscapes, to invade the sky, to dominate all the continents and to wipe out almost all the other large animals, we may have the faint suspicion that if they choose, dolphins could do likewise. It's a possibility that we can't completely dismiss. We just don't know.

Well — that's not right. One of us knows. The late and very lamented British writer, satirist, and wildlife explorer Doug Adams, in Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, explained that "on the planet Earth, man had always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much — the wheel, New York, wars and so on — whilst all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man — for precisely the same reasons."

Maybe that's why they fascinate us. What if, after tens of thousands of years conquering and murdering and dominating, it turns out that leaping, diving and mucking around in the water is what the real smarties do?


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Comments [11]

Dana from Delaware

I'm in agreement with India's decision. Dolphin shows are not in the best interests of the animals. They are intelligent enough that they probably understand the difference between being in captivity and being in the open ocean. And the signs of emotional behaviors observed by marine biologists, coupled with what we know about their brain structures, suggests that it's likely they are sensitive enough to be unhappy about being in captivity. Sure, maybe there's a dolphin out there that loves his life in the spotlight. But until one of them leaps onto a boat and begs "Please take me to Sea World and make me a star!", it's unethical to force any of them to do it. Just like it would be unethical to bring back human slavery on the off chance that maybe some people like being slaves.

I'm sure plenty of people are going to cry out "But where do we draw the line? If we can't keep dolphins, should I also set my dog free?" But we all know how ridiculous that argument is. There's an obvious difference between a dog, an animal that has evolved in human captivity and is mentally and physically suited for being a pet, and a dolphin, for whom our human behavior is completely alien. And it's not as if anyone is dependent on dolphin shows for survival. Dolphin trainers will surely find other work, and Sea World will find other things to attract visitors. We don't depend on them for food or for our economy. The only reason anyone wants captive dolphins is entertainment, and that's just not a good enough reason to potentially be enslaving a highly intelligent, emotionally complex creature.

Nov. 12 2015 10:05 AM
Niki from Corvallis, OR

The ancient Greeks used to call dolphins "the People of the Sea" and would identify as sacrilegious any action that would hurt them.

Oct. 09 2015 10:10 AM
ST from California

I had heard about this before, but you shed new light... fantastic!

Oct. 01 2015 12:37 AM
George from Phoenix

What I find particularly difficult is that we really don't know what our effect on dolphins is. We might intuit that we should leave the dolphins alone as they are smart enough to figure out what's best for them. But it just might be the case that interacting with humans helps dolphins utilize that massive brain in ways they wouldn't normally. (I'm reminded of apes and chimpanzees learning languages.) Leaving dolphins alone may not be in the dolphins best interest. We just don't know.

Sep. 30 2015 01:28 PM
JCSmith from Hilo Hawaii

Dolphin ear bones are HUGE! Smart people listen.

Jun. 30 2013 02:59 AM

"So long, and thanks for all the fish."
-The last message from dolphins to mankind in Douglas Adams' book The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

Jun. 23 2013 09:42 PM
Eric from CA

It's interesting to read your article regarding the Navy retiring the dolphins from the mine searching project. For over 2 years I served in the Navy's dolphin project, when SEAL's still owned it. Later the project went to the Navy's EOD group.

I can't go into too much detail of the project, but suffice it to say, using the most advanced technology of the early 80's, not once could man or machine produce anywhere near the proficiency the "critters" could. We never lost to a machine, we always won and found all the objects. And now man thinks he has a machine that can do the same work of the dolphin. It just goes to show how little our brains are compared to the incredible beauty and unique talens of these mazing animals.

Good luck UUV's, you'll need it!!

Jun. 18 2013 12:09 AM
George Potratz from Seattle

Makes WE nervous? Sheesh!

Jun. 17 2013 09:00 PM
Adrienne from New York City

As a non-scientist, voracious reader, radio-lab devotee, and documentary junkie, I'm wondering if you've seen the Oscar winning film "The Cove." Dolphins are more than sentient, aquatic mammals. They have language, self-awareness and organized family units. As far as I can tell, not one has ever volunteered for military service, much less a recurring or title role on a popular TV series or a life sentence at Sea World.

Jun. 17 2013 09:00 AM

This reminds me of an essay by John Jeremiah Sullivan:

Jun. 17 2013 08:54 AM

It seems, then, that to display my utmost level of smartiness, I should go leap, dive, and muck around in the water with a middle aged dolphin from Connecticut before I die.

Jun. 17 2013 08:32 AM

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